When 78-year-old John Lyon went missing in the mountains of Baxter State Park on Aug. 27, volunteers traveled across the state of Maine to join park rangers in searching for the lost hiker. Three days later, he was found alive and well, walking along a brook several miles away from the trail he’d originally been hiking.
“He will be the first to tell you that he will never hike again without a map,” wrote the Baxter State Authority in an update on its official Facebook page after the rescue.
Lyon’s 72-hour stint in the wilderness has stirred conversation on the Internet about the wilderness navigation and survival, as well as hiker responsibility.
Bryan Courtois, president of Pine Tree Search and Rescue, recently spoke with the Bangor Daily News about personal navigation, and the importance of hiking prepared. His organization was one of many volunteer groups that helped search for Lyon.
Q: If you’re hiking and discover you’ve lost the trail, what’s the best thing to do?
Bryan Courtois: Initially, I’d say you might try to backtrack a little bit, and if you don’t find the trail, the best thing to do is just sit right where you are. A prime example of this is the hiker that just got lost for three days in Baxter State Park. If the moment he realized he was off the trail he’d just stayed where he was, he would have likely been in yelling distance of the trail … Most people don’t want to admit they’re lost, so they move around more than they should and get themselves further lost. There’s a book called “Lost Person Behavior” that wardens use that has a lot of statistical behavior about what people usually do when lost. It’s an interesting book. They kind of break it down by if someone’s a hiker, hunter, fisherman or berry picker — all based on what these people have done in the past.
Q: What are some essentials to have in your backpack while hiking in a place like Baxter State Park?
B.C.: I’d say everything you’d normally bring on a day hike — your food and water. I always have a raincoat in my pack, and rain pants. I always have a fleece, hat, gloves and some way of purifying water, some way of starting a fire, and a map and compass, obviously, the map being more important than the compass because even with just a map, you can get an idea of where you are by orienting yourself based on your surroundings. Pack having a vision of, if you had to spend the night, could you? It’s not going to be the most comfortable night in the woods, but you’ll get up in the morning with all your fingers and toes and [you’ll be] mentally aware enough to aid in your rescue. One other really important thing is if someone had personal medication they need to take, they should have a couple days’ supply of that. In Baxter this past weekend, there was a gentleman who was diabetic and stuck out overnight without any of his medication. We were able to run it up and get it to him first thing in the morning.
Q: When it comes to learning about wilderness navigation, what do you suggest people start with? What’s a good foundation?
B.C.: What’s ideal is taking a class with somebody. I know of a couple of different organizations that [offer classes]. But if you’re not able to take a class, probably the most important thing is, if you’re going out with a map, really look at the map beforehand. Follow the route you’re going to take and make note of what you’re going to see along the way. Then, when you’re on the trail, really keep track of where you are as you go. [For example,] know that you’re somewhere between the trailhead and the first trail junction, and as you cross that, know you’re somewhere between the first junction and a stream crossing. And know about how long it’s going to take you to get from one feature to another. It’s situational awareness, knowing where you are at all times.
Q: A lot of people nowadays use handheld GPS (Global Positioning System) devices to navigate in the wilderness. Are GPS devices intuitive, or do you need some training to use them?
B.C.: I would say yes and no. The ones that have the maps in them, once they’re loaded, will show you a little dot where you are in relation to the map. In that regard, it’s kind of easy to use. But they also need to be set up properly. By default, most GPS devices give you true bearings, not magnetic bearings, but you need to use the GPS with magnetic bearings if you’re going to be using a compass … there’s a whole bunch of settings on GPS devices that need to be set up so you can use it efficiently. Out of the box, most of them have default settings that aren’t optimal … As a tool, it’s great. But you don’t want to ever rely on it because it has battery life, electronics break, screens go bad and are affected by the cold. The newer ones are better, but they’re still electronic devices that can fail at the most inopportune moment — or you can lose it.
Q: What should a person do if they lose their GPS?
B.C.: Again, you should have a map. And typically, before you go into the wilderness, you should have established an escape bearing, some major land feature — we call them handrails — so that if everything goes south and you’ve totally lost direction, you can head in a direction and know that you’ll hit that landmark. It’s something you cannot cross without knowing it — like a road or railroad or stream.
Q: I’ve been told there are several different types of satellite tracking devices that could have prevented some of the recent lost-person scenarios, but those devices can be pricey. Are they worth it?
B.C.: I think they are worth it, and they’re getting better all the time. The one I have experience with is the Delorme inReach … [With it,] I can send a text message, and the person who gets it can reply. Not only does the person get the message, they also get GPS coordinates of where I am. And there’s a mode, where if I turned it on, it would send off a little signal every 5 minutes or hour or wherever I choose, and so anyone you authorize to look at that info can track exactly where you are. They can be helpful, but again, they have to be turned on, batteries need to be charged. I have one because a lot of times, I’m out in remote places and have no cellphone coverage, so it’s just one more thing in the toolbox to use. It’s a piece of technology, and like a GPS, it can fail. It’s not something to rely on. If it works, great, if it doesn’t, I can deal.